Killarney Oakwoods

On the lower slopes of Tomies and Shehy Mountains, adjacent to Lough Leane, can be found the largest area of ancient Oakwoods remaining in the country. This area, and other smaller patches of oakwood within the National Park total approximately 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) in extent, and are comprised mainly of the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), which favours the acidic soils associated with the old red sandstone of Killarney's mountains.Oakwoods in the Killarney valley (photo Paudie O'Leary)At one time, Ireland was almost entirely wooded, however a combination of climate change and woodland clearance for agriculture over the past 5,000 years meant that many woodlands were in gradual decline. Despite this, at the end of the sixteenth century Ireland was still relatively wooded, with one eighth of its surface area covered in forest. The early part of the seventeenth century saw an 'industrial revolution' in Ireland however, and alongside this came a rapid increase in the rate of exploitation of woodlands.

Significant amounts of oak were used for shipbuilding, barrel making and leather tanning, however the biggest cause of Oakwood destruction in Killarney was charcoal production to fire the smelters used in the local iron industry (about 25 tons of Oak were needed to produce 1 ton of cast iron).

Most of the trees in the Killarney Oakwoods are about 200 years old, and there are many traces remaining of the industry that once thrived there. It is probably true to say, therefore, that the majority of the individual trees in the present day Oakwoods were planted, and true 'ancient' Oakwoods are restricted to a few isolated pockets of woodland in the mountain valleys.

Nevertheless, the Oakwoods abound with wildlife, and beneath the canopy is an understorey of Holly and a field layer that includes Woodrush and Bilberry. The humidity of the Killarney area gives rise to a spectacular display of mosses, ferns and liverworts, and many of these live as epiphytes, attached to the branches of the oak trees themselves. Bird life includes the Chaffinch, Robin, Goldcrest, Blue Tit and Wren, whilst mammals include the Woodmouse, Fox, Badger, Red Deer, Sika Deer, Red Squirrel and Pine Marten. Insects are also present in huge numbers to exploit the Oak's bountiful harvest, including many species of parasitic Gall Wasp, and the Purple Hairstreak butterfly, whose caterpillar is entirely dependent upon Oak.

The presence of the introduced Common Rhododendron in some areas of Oakwood poses a considerable threat - Rhododendron shades out almost all other plants, thereby preventing regeneration. Unless the Rhododendron is cleared, there can be no growth of new Oaks to replace the natural loss of mature trees. The National Park therefore implements a policy of Rhododendron control and eradication in threatened areas, and Oak seedlings grown from local acorns are planted where necessary.

The Oakwoods at Tomies are open to the public and there are several walking tracks running throughout the area.




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